There is an issue that’s been causing me high blood pressure and a battered liver from all the therapeutic wine I’ve been caused to drink. It’s an issue relevant to the majority of our wineries: tasting rooms.
Yes, our beloved tasting rooms, with their carefully cultivated ambience, normally in a setting of glorious natural beauty and obviously with superb wine offerings. There’s a big problem in our little corners of vino nirvana – a culture of mediocrity and sub-par customer service.
(Disclaimer: I work with tasting rooms. I’m familiar with the management of all types: small and boutique to large and commercial and everything in between. I’m not writing this because I once had an underwhelming experience and have been waiting to whine about it. I’m also pointing out very pervasive but very general issues – there is also a long list of wineries that very much get it right.)
Firstly, I find it worrying how undervalued tasting rooms sometimes are by winery owners or management. You have an outlet where the public literally comes to you (often unbidden and uninfluenced by marketing or advertising) to sample and purchase your wine. Yet the level of investment in the tasting room itself or the staff can be minimal – some wineries seem to view it as an annoying expense rather than a tool not only for sales but for creating a lasting link to your customer base. Sealing the deal with a customer through an informative and entertaing and hence memorable experience can create a customer for life and a source of word-of-mouth advertising that doesn’t cost you another cent.
This brings me to the next problem – ineffective staff management, training and hiring practices. With the summer silly season approaching, many wineries are in the process of hiring extra casual staff for the coming months – often students looking for summer jobs. Nothing wrong with that. But when you hire extra hands with no consideration for whether or not they actually know or care about wine, you’re digging yourself a hole. Friends informed me of a recent experience at a winery where they walked in and before even sitting down, the casual tells them “I’m new here, so please don’t ask me any questions”. Hilarious, right? It would be, if it weren’t such a perfect illustration of the problem.
Let’s not even start on inconsistency. After an enjoyable, professional experience at a prominent Franschhoek farm, friends visited the same tasting room less than two weeks later, on my recommendation. Their experience was the polar opposite. Same winery. Same staff. Less than 14 days apart. Or what about another top Franschhoek winery with the most uninspired staff I’ve ever encountered, where the visit was crowned by one staff member responding to the question of which dish a vegetarian could pair with the Syrah by mumbling “Umm, vegetables?” and walking off. True story.
I know these examples don’t sound horrific (and truly, I’ve experienced far worse). But they’re everywhere, and THAT is the problem. Mediocrity is the acceptable norm and frankly, that’s not good enough. I’m not well traveled but I did visit a couple of Napa wineries recently and I was blown away by the standard of customer service. Sure, they also have their bad apples and mediocre employees, but being dead average is neither as prevalent nor as acceptable as it is here.
The problem has many possible causes – tasting room managers are either not up scratch or if they are, they may be prevented from doing their best for whatever reason. I’m reminded of the classic Corporate Dilemma: “What if we train them and they leave? / What if we don’t, and they stay?”. It’s no great leap to see that properly trained staff provides better customer experiences – and that a better customer experience leads to improved sales. And yet, it’s a leap many wineries seemingly fail to make.
I become faint with frustration when I hear how much wineries spend on marketing, advertising, social media, brand building exercises, promotions and giving away cash and freebies to bleggers and vultures when their very own tasting room is a shambles. It’s time to get your (front of) house in order.